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by Brian Brooks
February 17, 2009 2:37 AM
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Oscar '09: "Milk"'s Dustin Lance Black

While attending a party with both gay and straight members of the film and music communities last weekend in Los Angeles, I was struck by the parallels between the current post-Prop 8 environment and the anti-gay Prop 6 that late San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk campaigned to defeat in the '70s. "There were no gay people shown in the early anti-8 commercials," one attendee told me over the weekend. "They made it an abstract rights issue, while the pro-8 people made it personal. It was only after [the Yes vote] went up in the polls that they started rolling out Ellen [DeGeneres] on TV." As seen in Gus Vant Sant's new film, ""Milk," Harvey Milk advocated way back in the 1970s that gay people need to make themselves visible in order to change perceptions in society, a subject I discussed with "Milk" writer Dustin Lance Black recently in California.

We chatted prior to election day, but even though the proposition has passed, the story is far from over. An anti-8 demonstration this weekend in Los Angeles attracted 12,000 people including Drew Barrymore who spoke emotionally about the need to reverse the initiative, a demonstration took place last night on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and a nationwide protest is on tap for this Saturday.

"Harvey was great at understanding that unless you advocate for yourself, you'll fail," "Milk writer Dustin Lance Black told indieWIRE the day after the glittering world premiere of the film in San Francisco last month. "People will vote against you unless they know who they're hurting. That middle-of-the-road voter who is happy to vote yes or no on Proposition 8 - [well] I think it just takes some friend or loved one to say, 'You know, that would really hurt me... It would be very hard for me if you did that...'"

So, with the passage of California's controversial Proposition 8, Focus Features' upcoming Sean Penn starrer, "Milk" has taken on added importance for activists and observers, both gay and straight alike, who hope to realize marriage equality in America. Written by Black and directed by Van Sant, the film concentrates on the final eight years of gay activist and politician Harvey Milk's life.

A scene from Gus Van Sant's "Milk," written by Dustin Lance Black. Clip via YouTube

Milk's poltical awakening began after a monumental birthday. Living a bohemian life during his youth, at age forty Milk became the political lightning rod he is remembered as today after moving with his lover to San Francisco and opening a small camera shop in the Castro neighborhood. He quickly became swept up in local issues including police harrassment and equal rights. After several attempts at running for office, all the while increasing his stature in the increasingly activist community, Harvey Milk won a seat on San Francisco's Board of Supervisors, becoming the first openly elected gay politician in the United States.

While San Francisco became the central front of the gay rights movement, across the country, laws protecting gays against discrimination were voted down in ballot initiatives spearheaded by country singer Anita Bryant. After a string of nationwide success, an anti-gay ballot measure known as Proposition 6 appeared on the ballot in California. It would have removed all gay teachers and their sympathizers from their posts.

Writing "Milk" only reinforced Dustin Lance Black's passion about issues, he explained recently, telling indieWIRE that he has always considered himself political while admitting to becoming obsessed with candidates and issues. Despite the sometimes unseemly side of politics, Black said that he finds opportunity through political action. "Politics is politics and there's always a lot of bullshit around it, but it's also an opportunity to educate people about the issues, which is the really exciting thing. Whether you win or fail, you're always affecting change... I'd like to get a gay marriage initiative in Texas... Will it ever pass? Probably not, but you will start to change minds. It lets you say, 'hey, we're not all creepsters, and maybe even some of your sons and daughters and friends [are gay]...'"

Sean Penn in a scene from "Milk." Photo by Phil Bray/Focus Features

Black grew up Mormon, living in a conservative neighborhood outside San Antonio, Texas, not exactly the most supportive environment for a young gay kid. "I was super closeted," recalled Black. "I knew I was gay from a very young age, and growing up in [that environment] in the Mormon Church, you'd hear the word 'faggot' all the time."

Later, he moved with his mother and her new husband to Fort Ord in Central California, settling in the Salinas area where he became involved with the local theater. He also started making trips up to San Francisco. Eventually at U.C.L.A., he studied directing. "I never wanted to be a writer initially," he recalled. "It was not my thing, but I was an avid reader... I also took classes in the Russian literature program. Dosteovky is very cinematic," Black said chuckling. "I never thought that this is what I'd end up doing..."

After college, he began to explore art direction and transitioned to directing documentaries including festival fave "On the Bus," as well as "My Life with Count Dracula," about Dr. Donald A. Reed. Doc success landed him a job on the BBC's "Faking It" (shown Stateside on TLC) but the experience left him feeling somewhat empty. While friends where praising his early success, Black felt an urge to do something more substantial. "I'm chasing people with a camera and I feel like I'm kind of like a jerk," Black recalled, "It didn't feel quite right so I started writing at the time so I could direct soemthing I cared about." In 2004, Black began work as a writer and producer of HBO's acclaimed series "Big Love," working with the program for three seasons.

He also explored deeper ideas that resonated personally. "I picked subjects that mattered to me," Black explained, singling out his portrait of Dr. Donald A. Reed, the leading genre film scholar, book store owner and friend to many filmmakers and writers . "Reed was a father figure, which is sort of a running theme for me," Black admitted, emphasizing that this paternal search drove him to Milk.

"I first heard there was this thing called an 'out gay man...'," he recalled of his time in Texas, "You never hear anything like that in San Antonio," Black added, noting that he became fascinated by Harvey Milk, the leading openly gay politician of his time. Eventually he found someone who knew Milk's friend and political associate Cleve Jones, a founder the Names Project, and he was on his way to telling Milk's story.

"I didn't know [Jones] was still alive," Black explained. "I met Cleve and it was love at first sight... He's really amazing. He lived that father/son story with Harvey, and for me, it's something I'm always drawn to - the missing father and how you fill that void."

As depicted in the film, "Milk" was a father figure to Cleve Jones, meeting him while Jones was in his 20s and becoming Jones' close friend and mentor. So, with Cleve Jones's help, Black embarked upon writing the script about Milk.

At last month's world premiere, across the street from Harvey Milk's old camera store at the Castro Theatre, the scene was reminiscent of the 1970s when Milk lead protests through the neighborhood and inspired a movement. Hundreds held 'No on Prop 8' signs and demonstrated during the red carpet arrivals. "I was a mess, I was crying from the moment I stepped in there..." Black admitted, reflecting on the special night, just a week before the recent election. While Prop 8 eventually passed, the measure has inspired the wave of protests that continue this week.

Coming up, Black is looking forward to his narrative feature directing debut. What's Wrong with Virginia will star Jennifer Connelly, from a script he wrote and will begin shooting in the Spring. He is also on tap to re-team with Van Sant as writer of an adaptation of Tom Wolfe's "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test."

"Milk" opens in U.S. theaters on November 26th.


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